Zika and re­pro­duc­tive rights

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Mos­qui­toes know no bound­aries, and nei­ther does fear. As pub­lic-health ex­perts grap­ple with the Zika virus, panic con­tin­ues to spread around the world. Yet the cri­sis has brought to light two im­por­tant truths.

The first rev­e­la­tion is how badly de­graded pub­lic health sys­tems have be­come, across Latin Amer­ica and be­yond. This did not hap­pen by chance. In large part, it is the re­sult of pres­sure on de­vel­op­ing coun­tries by con­ces­sion­ary lenders, such as the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund, to cut so­cial sec­tor ex­penses, in­clud­ing health spend­ing, be­gin­ning in 1980. In Brazil and else­where, state au­thor­i­ties could have de­ployed well-known and cost-ef­fec­tive mea­sures to con­trol mos­quito-borne dis­eases, but they did not. Their most af­fected cit­i­zens, who tend to be poor, have been forced to live with the con­se­quences.

Se­cond, the Zika epi­demic has re­vealed, with par­tic­u­lar poignancy, an­other dire threat to pub­lic health: the de­nial of women’s re­pro­duc­tive rights. Gov­ern­ments are shirk­ing their re­spon­si­bil­ity in this re­gard too, of­ten in a grotesque man­ner. The re­ported spike in cases of mi­cro­cephaly – a birth de­fect – among in­fants in Zika-af­fected ar­eas led the gov­ern­ments of Brazil, Colom­bia, Ecuador, and El Salvador to warn their fe­male cit­i­zens “not to be­come preg­nant.”

This mes­sage, which places the blame and bur­den of the Zika epi­demic on women, is as un­just as it is un­rea­son­able. It is also tooth­less, as many women in the re­gion do not have ac­cess to con­tra­cep­tion or safe abor­tions. The Zika cri­sis has high­lighted an ob­vi­ous re­al­ity: Not pro­vid­ing women with re­pro­duc­tive health in­for­ma­tion and ser­vices places their lives – and those of their chil­dren – at grave risk.

Latin Amer­ica’s abor­tion laws are among the world’s most re­stric­tive. El Salvador, for ex­am­ple, bans abor­tion in all cir­cum­stances and has in­car­cer­ated women who have gone to emer­gency rooms af­ter mis­car­riages, charg­ing them with seek­ing il­le­gal abor­tions. Con­tra­cep­tion can also be ex­pen­sive or dif­fi­cult to ac­cess across the re­gion, de­spite high rates of teenage rape and preg­nancy. The re­sult, es­pe­cially with the ad­di­tion of the Zika virus, is a recipe for tragedy.

Brazil, the Latin Amer­i­can coun­try hit hard­est by the virus so far, is em­blem­atic of the prob­lem: Abor­tion is al­lowed only in cases of rape, dan­ger to the woman’s life, or in the case of fe­tal anen­cephaly (the ab­sence of a ma­jor por­tion of the brain). In re­sponse to the Zika cri­sis, Brazil should im­me­di­ately al­low abor­tion in cases of sus­pected mi­cro­cephaly as well.

The loos­en­ing of re­stric­tions, how­ever, should not stop there. Over the last few years, con­ser­va­tives in the Brazil­ian Congress have been try­ing to place lim­its on abor­tion in cases of rape. Th­ese ef­forts – which demon­strate com­plete dis­re­gard for the rights and dig­nity of women – must end. In­stead, women’s right to seek an abor­tion should be ex­panded – and quickly.

Gov­ern­ments must also en­sure that ser­vices are ac­ces­si­ble and af­ford­able. Wealthy Brazil­ian women can af­ford to pay pri­vate health providers for safe abor­tions. Poor women are forced to re­sort to poorly trained and equipped providers who op­er­ate in un­san­i­tary con­di­tions, some­times as part of crim­i­nal net­works. In Septem­ber 2014, two women died in Rio de Janeiro fol­low­ing clan­des­tine abor­tions. In the re­gion over­all, 95% of abor­tions are un­safe.

In Latin Amer­ica and the Caribbean, 62% of women aged 15-49 want to avoid a preg­nancy. But nearly a quar­ter of th­ese women are not us­ing an ef­fec­tive method of birth con­trol. Ex­pense is only one bar­rier for poor women and girls; an­other is the lack of in­for­ma­tion. Men and women need com­pre­hen­sive sex­u­al­ity education, so they are in­formed about their re­pro­duc­tive health and fam­ily plan­ning op­tions and know where they can get mod­ern con­tra­cep­tives. Re­cent ev­i­dence sug­gest­ing that Zika might be trans­mit­ted sex­u­ally adds ex­tra ur­gency to mak­ing male and fe­male con­doms and other con­tra­cep­tives widely avail­able.

The move­ment for re­pro­duc­tive rights has a long his­tory in Brazil and in other parts of Latin Amer­ica. Over the last sev­eral months – even be­fore Zika – fem­i­nists had been tak­ing to the streets in out­rage at the lack of ac­cess to safe and le­gal abor­tions. The Zika cri­sis may mark a turn­ing point in the fight for women’s health and equal­ity. It is cer­tainly a wake-up call for gov­ern­ments ev­ery­where to re­build and strengthen pub­lic health sys­tems, and to guar­an­tee all women and girls ac­cess to con­tra­cep­tives and safe abor­tions. Women and girls around the world know the al­ter­na­tive – and it is ter­ri­fy­ing.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Cyprus

© PressReader. All rights reserved.